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What Hypocrisy Tells Us

photograph of the lighted front of the Metropolitan museum of art at night

On September 13th, 2021, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended the 2021 MET Gala wearing a white ball gown emblazoned with the phrase “Tax the Rich” in bright red lettering. The command on the dress was a reference to Ocasio-Cortez’s fiscal platform policy of increasing the tax burden on the wealthiest 1% of U.S. earners. Wearing (literal) statement pieces to the red-carpet Hollywood events is nothing new; celebrities such as Megan Rapinoe and Cara Delevingne have both attended the MET Gala in pieces protesting various social injustices, and Lady Gaga famously attended the MTV’s VMAs in a dress made of meat to protest the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Predictably, Ocasio-Cortez’s look immediately received a flood of attention, some positive, and some quite negative. The most prominent thread of criticism, however, was not criticism of the political position itself. Rather, critics on both sides of the aisle took issue with Ocasio-Cortez advocating for increasing taxes on the rich while attending a tax-payer subsidized event that costs a minimum of $30,000 per ticket. In other words, people were upset that someone would perform (what they took to be) a criticism of extreme wealth while attending an event that indicated they themselves had access to, and benefited from, extreme wealth. That is to say, people accused Ocasio-Cortez of being a hypocrite.

Accusations of political hypocrisy are a fairly standard complaint to make, not only of politicians and public figures, but sometimes also of a movement as a whole. Consider this critique of anti-abortion politicians by a group called Pro-Choice America. Herein, Pro-Choice America accuses politically conservative people who are against legalized abortion of being hypocrites in virtue of rejecting other policy proposals. The other policy proposals in question include: nationalized healthcare, subsidized higher education, affordable housing, eased immigration restrictions, and so on. Their insinuated argument is something like the following: if you are against abortion because you are “pro-life”, then consistency demands you also favor other political positions that would help people live better lives.

From the other side of the aisle, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, republicans have been accusing democrat politicians of hypocrisy for instances of failing to abide by the masking and social distancing rules they have signed into law. Such failures include instances of gathering indoors without masks, patronizing salons and restaurants, and hosting birthday parties with long guest lists.

But what is the purpose of pointing out apparent ideological hypocrisy of individuals or groups? If Nancy Pelosi acts hypocritically in failing to conform to mask mandates that she endorsed, does this indicate that mask mandates are not a good policy after all? There is no obvious connection between a person’s failure to act consistently in accordance with their beliefs, and the falseness of those beliefs. That is, hypocrisy on the part of advocates is not straightforward evidence against the policies they are advocating for. It may be that the policies themselves are the correct ones to implement — the advocates may be merely weak-willed. Yet, charges of hypocrisy are often brought forth as evidence against the beliefs of the would-be hypocrite. Is pointing out hypocrisy a legitimate way of critiquing someone’s beliefs or policy positions?

A common response to perceived hypocrisy is that, in acting hypocritically, we lose the right to advocate for certain beliefs or policies. For example, a politician who advocates against legal abortion may be accused of lacking the right to an opinion on the matter if it is revealed that he once procured an abortion for a pregnant mistress. Are hypocrites doing something wrong by speaking out of turn? It is hard to see exactly how one may lose a “right” to speak to an issue merely by failing to live up to their own standards. There is no commonly-recognized moral duty to only speak up in favor of behaviors that you yourself follow. Additionally, if consequences are what matter morally, then one ought to advocate for correct policies even if they are so weak-willed that they cannot follow their own prescriptions. Of course, it would be better if one could, as they say, take their own medicine, but it would still maximize the good to encourage other people to act well/implement good policies, regardless of whether they act consistently in their private life. For example, if mask mandates maximized well-being for the country as a whole, then politicians who refused to wear a mask would still (according to utilitarianism) do best to advocate for mask mandates.

On the other hand, a virtue ethicist like Aristotle might say that behaving hypocritically, either by failing to act on your convictions or by advocating for positions you do not truly accept, is a sign of vice — that is, bad character. And having bad character may incline one to believe, or advocate for, bad positions and policies. At least, we are probably more confident in the judgments of people with good character than the judgments of people with bad character. And so, if hypocrisy is a sign of bad character, this could provide some indirect evidence against the views or policies in question.

From a psychological perspective, we may infer from an act of hypocrisy that the person in question is being dishonest about what they say they believe. For example, we may suspect that someone’s true reasons for opposing legal abortion is misogynistic in nature rather than related to the inherent value of life if they advocate for other policies that fail to adequately value life. But even if someone is lying or being misleading about their true beliefs, this should not upset any additional evidence we have in favor of those beliefs or policies. Someone who thinks abortion is wrong on the basis of arguments would not be dissuaded merely because some politician lied about his desire to protect all life. Someone who believes, for social and economic reasons, that the tax burden on the top 1% of U.S. earners should be increased, would not be dissuaded from this belief even if Ocasio-Cortez acted hypocritically in attending the MET Gala.

In conclusion, charges of hypocrisy hit hard, but it is not clear exactly whether, or how, the charges constitute a criticism of the positions of the supposed hypocrite. Regardless, we would likely do better to focus more on the beliefs and policies themselves than on the fallible humans endorsing them.

Do Politicians Have a Right to Privacy?

photograph of Matt Hancock delivering press briefing

On Friday, June 25th, 2021, British tabloid The Sun dropped a bombshell: leaked CCTV images of (then) UK Health Secretary, MP Matt Hancock, kissing a political aide in his office. Video footage of the pair intimately embracing rapidly circulated on social media. Notably, the ensuing outrage centered not on the fact that Hancock was cheating on his wife (lest we forget, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is himself a serial offender), but on the hypocrisy of Hancock breaching his own social distancing guidelines. By the next day, with his position looking increasingly untenable, Hancock resigned. Thus, the man who had headed up the UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months was toppled by a single smooch.

In the wake of this political scandal, it is useful to take a step back and consider the ethical issues which this episode brings to light. Following the release of the video, Hancock pleaded for “privacy for my family on this personal matter.” What is privacy, and why is it valuable? Does a distinct right to privacy exist? Do politicians plausibly waive certain rights to privacy in running for public office? When (if ever) can an individual’s right to privacy be justifiably infringed, and was this the case in the Hancock affair?

It is widely accepted that human beings have a very strong interest in maintaining a hidden interior which they can choose not to share with others. The general contents of this interior will differ widely between cultures; after all, what facts count as ‘private’ is a contingent matter which will vary depending on the social context. Nevertheless, according to the philosophy professor Tom Sorell, this hidden interior can roughly be divided into three constituents (at least, in most Western contexts): the home, the body, and the mind.

There are a plethora of reasons as to why privacy is important to us. For instance, let us briefly consider why we might value a hidden psychological interior. Without the ability to shield one’s inner thoughts from others, individuals would not be able to engage in autonomous self-reflection, and consequently would be a different self altogether. Moreover, according to the philosopher James Rachels, the ability to keep certain aspects of ourselves hidden is essential to our capacity to form a diverse range of interpersonal social relationships. If we were always compelled to reveal our most intimate secrets, then this would not only devalue our most meaningful relationships, but would also make it impossible to form less-intimate relationships such as mere acquaintances (which I take to be valuable in their own right).

There is considerable debate over whether a distinct right to privacy exists. As the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson famously noted, “perhaps the most striking thing about the right to privacy is that nobody seems to have any very clear idea what it is.” According to Thomson, this can be explained by the fact that our seeming ‘right’ to privacy is in fact wholly derivative of a cluster of other rights which we hold, such as rights over our property or our body; put another way, our interest in privacy can be wholly attributed to our interest in other goods which are best served by recognizing a discrete, private realm, such that we have no separate interest in something called ‘privacy’.

Suppose that a right to privacy does in fact exist. Can this right to privacy be (i) waived, (ii) forfeited, or (iii) trumped? Let us go through each in turn. A right is waived if the rights-holder voluntarily forgoes that right. Many people believe that certain rights (for instance, the right not to be enslaved) cannot be voluntarily waived. However, intuitively it would seem that privacy is not such an inalienable right: there are plenty of goods which we may legitimately want to trade privacy off against, such as our ability to communicate with others online. It could be argued that, in choosing to run for public office, politicians waive certain rights to privacy which other members of the public retain, since they do so in the knowledge that a certain degree of media scrutiny is a necessary part of being a public servant. Perhaps, then, Hancock had waived his right to keeping his sexual life private, in virtue of having run for public office.

A right is arguably forfeited if the rights-holder commits certain acts of wrongdoing. For instance, according to the so-called rights forfeiture theory of punishment, “punishment is justified when and because the criminal has forfeited her right not to be subjected to this hard treatment.” For those who endorse this (albeit controversial) view, it could perhaps be thought that Hancock forfeited his right not to have this sexual life publicized, in virtue of having culpably committed the wrongdoing of breaching social distancing guidelines and/or hypocrisy.

Finally, can a right to privacy be trumped? Philosophers disagree about whether it is coherent to talk about rights ‘trumping’ one another. According to the philosopher Hillel Steiner, rights comprise a logically compossible set, meaning that they never conflict with one another. By contrast, philosophers such as Thomson maintain that rights can and do conflict with each other.

Suppose that we think that the latter is true. In an instance where an agent’s right to privacy conflicts with the right of another agent, we must determine whose interests are weightier and give them priority. In the case of the Hancock saga, it could be said that there was a strong public interest in knowing that the Health Secretary had breached his own social distancing guidelines. However, the mere existence of a public interest in knowing this information is not sufficient to generate a right on behalf of the public to find out this information; moreover, even if it did, this would not necessarily trump the right of the individual politician to privacy.

So, did the leaking of the CCTV footage breach Hancock’s right to privacy? And if so, were the newspaper reports nevertheless justified on balance? My own view is that Hancock had neither waived nor forfeited his right to privacy, and that his right to privacy was not trumped by other considerations – that is to say, I think that the leaking of the footage wronged Hancock in some way. Nevertheless, I have complete sympathy with the subsequent public reaction to the newspaper reports. Throughout the pandemic, many facts which had previously been regarded as paradigmatically ‘private’ (such as whether one was sexually active, and with whom) were suddenly subject to a very high degree of public intrusion. Set against this backdrop, the Hancock affair served as yet another instance of “one rule for the establishment, another for everyone else.”

Is It Right to Hope for a Politician’s Death?

photograph of newspaper stand with various magazines with Trump on the cover

For a wide swath of the U.S. population, the news that President Trump is COVID-19 positive was not exactly met with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many believe that Trump’s dithering, downplaying, and dismissals are in fact responsible for some non-trivial proportion of the country’s 200,000+ COVID deaths — a fact whose significance will become apparent shortly. That he now has the virus strikes many as a delicious irony, and not a few fondly hope and fervently pray that Trump may speedily pass away. But there are plenty of Trump opponents who find this bloody-mindedness unsavory, perhaps even unethical. Thus, we confront the following ethical issue: is it right to hope for a politician’s death?

There is an important caveat to the discussion that follows, which is that even if hoping for a politician’s death may be justified, that does not mean that we are justified in hoping for their deaths. The distinction has to do with our reasons for hope. While a justification might be available for hoping for a politician’s death, that often isn’t the reason why we actually hope for their death. Instead, the reasons why many people actually hope for politicians’ deaths have to do with revenge or hatred, which is not a sufficient justification for so hoping. In short, you aren’t actually justified in hoping for a politician’s death unless your motives for so hoping match the reasons that actually justify so hoping.

Here is an argument I have seen bandied about on social media. Commonsense morality recognizes circumstances under which killing is morally justified: namely, when it is necessary to save the life of a third-party, and more controversially, when it is deserved. If it is true that Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, then it might be argued that his death is both deserved and necessary for the prevention of many future deaths. But if an act that results in some outcome is morally justified, then the outcome is one that we may permissibly hope for, whether it is produced by an act or by some other cause. Therefore, we may hope for Trump’s death.

One problem with the argument is that Trump’s death is not strictly necessary to prevent future death; there are other ways to remove him from power. Nor is it obvious that Trump’s death is even the best, or the most efficient, means of preventing future death. Trump’s death would have many consequences that we can only dimly foresee, many of them probably not good for disease control and prevention. If the use of lethal force is not necessary, nor even the best or most efficient means of protecting third parties from imminent lethal harm, then its use is arguably unjustified. Furthermore, there may be an intent requirement: it may be impermissible to use lethal force to save innocent lives unless the person who threatens those lives intends, or at least can be reasonably interpreted as intending, to kill. Trump’s sin seems more like negligence than intentional wrongdoing.

We might also question whether Trump’s gross negligence really merits death. Generally speaking, the death penalty is reserved for those who commit intentional crimes, not negligent ones. On the other hand, it could be argued that negligence can be so gross that it does deserve death. Questions of proportionality are difficult to pin down with any precision.

It might also be objected that to hope for something is to view it as a good thing, and that we ought to hope for what is actually good. Furthermore, a person’s death is never a good thing, even if to kill that person would be morally justified. Thus, we should never hope for someone’s death. Here we are taking aim at the premise of the argument that says that if an act results in some morally justified outcome, then the outcome is one that we may permissibly hope for. Not so, says the objector: there are outcomes that are always bad, and so ones we should never hope for, even if it is permissible for us to bring them about.

It seems right to say that we should always hope for what is actually good. And it’s true that death is almost always bad for the person who dies. So, we can agree that Trump’s death would be bad for him. But Trump’s death would, ex hypothesi, also be good for many people. And it is also good if people get what they deserve. We can, therefore, plausibly say that what we hope for in the complex state of affairs that involves Trump’s death is that people will be saved, or that Trump will get what he deserves. Thus, there seems to be no difficulty hoping for Trump’s death even if it is bad for him, if what we are really hoping for are the good consequences of Trump’s death or that Trump gets his just deserts. Hope for these things does not involve hope for what is actually bad.

This point also applies to the slightly different objection that hope involves the anticipation of happiness, but we should never be happy about someone’s death. For example, many people thought the spectacle of crowds rambunctiously celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death was unsavory. One reason this might indeed be unsavory is because it involves taking pleasure in others’ misfortune, which seems like a bad thing, although this would have to be argued for in greater depth. It seems possible, however, to hope for a politician’s death in a way that does not involve taking pleasure in anticipating their misfortune, if the object of hope is either the good consequences that will flow from the politician’s death or that the politician gets what she deserves. Here we come back to the point that in order to be justified in hoping for a politician’s death, our motives must match the reasons that actually justify so hoping. If our hope is based on taking pleasure in anticipated misfortune, it may not be justified; but if it is based on the anticipated goods that either flow from or are realized by the politician’s death, it may be justified.

To conclude, it seems that we can be justified in hoping for a politician’s death under some circumstances, although it is less clear that these circumstances obtain with respect to President Trump. There is no special ethical barrier to hoping for a politician’s death in principle, although in so hoping most of us face the ethical pitfalls of vengeful feeling and sadistic pleasure.

Treating Principles as Mere Means

photograph of US Capitol Building with mirror image reflected in lake

With the Republican about-face concerning Supreme Court Senate votes, hypocrisy is once again back in the headlines. Many accusations of hypocrisy have been directed at Senator Lindsey Graham, whose support for a Senate vote for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee so clearly clashes with earlier statements — he said in 2018 that “if an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term and the primary process has started, we’ll wait till the next election” — that his behavior seems like the Platonic form of a certain kind of hypocrisy. Graham has responded with a hypocrisy accusation of his own, writing to Democrats on the judiciary panel that “if the shoe were on the other foot, you would do the same.” Amidst this controversy, it’s worth taking a step back to ask what force the accusation of hypocrisy is supposed to have.

In earlier columns, I have explored some suggestions for why hypocrisy is morally objectionable and rejected them. In this column I want to consider a theory first articulated by the philosopher Eva Feder Kittay. This account says that hypocrisy is morally objectionable because it involves treating important religious, political, or moral principles as mere means.

Immanuel Kant famously intoned against treating persons as mere means, or using them as mere instruments for the satisfaction of our own desires. What’s wrong with this is that it involves a kind of category error — it treats persons, beings with the capacity to rationally order their lives, as if they were things.

Clearly, however, this can’t be exactly what Kittay means when she talks about hypocrites treating principles as mere means: principles are not persons. Yet there is a link here. The kinds of principles Kittay is concerned with — moral and religious principles — are supposed to be adhered to because they are right, and not because they are useful to the adherent. Kant expressed this point with his distinction between categorical and hypothetical imperatives. A categorical imperative is one that is binding on you regardless of what you happen to desire. You can’t claim that some moral principle — “don’t kill innocents,” say — is not binding on you because you happen to want to kill innocents. That principle provides a reason for you not to kill innocents regardless of what you happen to want. By contrast, a hypothetical imperative — for example, “go to the store” — is only binding if you have some desire that will be promoted by acting according to the imperative. If there were nothing you wanted that you could get by going to store, that imperative would not be binding on you.

So, when Kittay says that hypocrites treat principles as mere means, she means that they treat categorical imperatives as if they were merely hypothetical. The hypocrite will adopt and discard moral principles as it suits them. Sometimes that adoption will be merely rhetorical — some hypocrites are entirely conscious that their pretense of principle is a charade. But other hypocrites will sincerely adopt moral principles, only to discard them whenever holding to them becomes inexpedient. In the case of Senate Republicans, their hypocrisy lies in their adoption of the principle of not confirming Supreme Court justices during an election year when it was convenient for them to do so, followed by their abandonment of this principle when it was convenient to do that. In doing this, they treated what seemed to be a categorical imperative — one that was binding on them even if they didn’t want to adhere to it — as if it were hypothetical.

What’s wrong with treating principles as mere means? For Kittay, the problem has to do with trust. According to her, we trust that when people claim to hold to certain categorical principles, they hold to them as categorical. We rely on this belief in our dealings with them, assuming, for example, that they will hold to those principles even if it is inconvenient for them to do so. Moreover, their assurances of commitment are all we have to go on; we can’t look into their souls to see what their true attitude toward their principles is. Hypocrisy reveals that there can be a deep divide between what people say they are committed to and what they are actually committed to. Thus, hypocrisy shows us that the part of our lives structured by principles is actually quite fragile, depending as it does on our trust in what people say. We therefore have strong incentives to expose and condemn hypocrisy. As Graham’s Democratic challenger for his Senate seat recently tweeted, “Senator Graham, you have proven that your word is worthless.”

There is, I think, another point to be made about how hypocrisy undermines categorical principles. What hypocrisy reveals is that for at least certain people, categorical principles are a mere mask for the unvarnished pursuit of power, wealth, and self-aggrandizement. The trouble is that compared to such people, those who voluntarily restrain themselves in accordance with categorical principles are at a distinct disadvantage. This puts pressure on everyone to abandon their principles. Thus, hypocrisy tends to erode everyone’s commitment to categorical principles as such. And if we think that categorical principles are good on the whole — that they help solve certain coordination problems, for example — then this is a bad thing for everyone.

So, what Senate Republicans have revealed with their latest hypocrisy is that for them, politics is a game of power untempered by principles. But when Republicans throw their principles overboard when it is convenient for them to do so, this increases the incentives for everyone else to do the same. And that, I will wager, is worse for everyone in the long run.

The Uses and Abuses of Political Hypocrisy

photograph of pinocchio sculpture atop puppet theatre in Kiev

Accusations of hypocrisy are so common in American politics that one usage of the term “politician” is as a near-synonym for “hypocrite” (“what’s your supervisor like?” “he’s a real politician.”) And for the most part, the hypocrisy of politicians is not considered laudable. Immanuel Kant famously condemned what he called the “political moralist” who “fashions his morality to suit his own advantage as a statesman,” paying homage to morality while devising “a hundred excuses and subterfuges to get out of observing them in practice.” Like Kant, most of us seem to prize integrity in our politicians.

Yet throughout history, other philosophers have argued that hypocrisy is a necessary part of politics. Niccolò Machiavelli defended hypocrisy as an indispensable tool in a world in which “a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good.” Much more recently, Judith Shklar argued that hypocrisy is nearly inevitable in political systems premised upon competitive elections, since candidates will employ persuasive rhetoric that requires a certain degree of dissimulation. Ruth Grant went further, arguing that without a plausible alternative for achieving comparable goods, hypocrisy in politics may very well be a moral necessity.

Thus, there appears to be disagreement about the inevitability and justifiability of hypocrisy in politics. In this column, I will focus on the kinds of hypocrisy politicians exhibit, and the question of whether and when political hypocrisy is morally preferable to non-hypocrisy.

It is important to note that hypocrisy is not a mere inconsistency between one’s words and deeds. For example, I would condemn many things I did as a teenager, but that does not automatically make me a hypocrite. One hallmark of hypocrisy is that the hypocrite pays homage to morality not out of genuine concern, but for self-serving reasons — to gain some undeserved advantage, to excuse himself, or to hide from blame. It is for this reason that we cannot trust that the hypocrite’s utterances reflect what he truly cares about, rather than what he believes to be advantageous in the moment.

It follows from this that many instances of political behavior that some might be tempted to call “hypocrisy” are, on reflection, not hypocrisy at all. Suppose that a politician publicly supports policy A, but then reads more about the issue and ends up voting for policy B. His former supporters might accuse him of hypocrisy, but this does not seem to be apt: the inconsistency between his public support of A and his eventual vote for B is due to a change of mind about the issue, rather than some self-serving reason.

Nevertheless, there are certainly many instances of true hypocrisy in politics. And while we tend to value integrity in our politicians, it can be plausibly argued that hypocrisy in the service of morally good ends is preferable to integrity in the service of morally bad ends. Politician A, while secretly racist, campaigns for office on an anti-racist platform in order to attract the support of minority constituents. Politician B, who is also racist, believes that one should stick to one’s principles even when doing so might hurt one’s electoral prospects, so he supports a racist platform. I would rather have A as a player in my political system, since A’s hypocrisy will help his minority constituents, unlike B’s integrity.

On the other hand, compare politician A to politician C, who genuinely holds anti-racist views and supports the same anti-racist platform. C seems morally preferable to A, but on what grounds? One answer is that, since C supports the anti-racist platform because it is right to do so, his support is morally creditworthy in a way that A’s is not. This might be Kant’s view, as he famously distinguished between actions in accord with and actions from duty; according to him, only the latter have moral worth. Another answer is that C’s proper anti-racist motives will more reliably lead him to promote anti-racist ends, whereas A would abandon those ends whenever it suits him politically. Some consequentialists might adopt this line. A third answer is that C’s behavior arises from virtuous motives while A’s does not; this is one position that a virtue theorist might take.

The trouble with the Kantian or virtue theoretical positions is that, while they can distinguish between A and C, they give no reason for us to prefer A over B. As we have seen, A’s support of the anti-racist platform is not morally creditworthy. Furthermore, because it involves deception — A knowingly causes others to falsely believe he supports an anti-racist position — its underlying maxim could not be universalized, which is Kant’s test for whether an action is morally permissible. So, on Kant’s view the deception practiced by A may make A worse than B; A’s behavior amounts to a “double iniquity.” If B’s integrity is a virtue, then the virtue theorist may also have to say that B is preferable to A; and if it is not, then at best A and B are morally equal, as in neither case does their behavior flow from virtuous motives.

Now consider politician D, who is secretly anti-racist but panders to his racist constituents by supporting B’s platform. This character seems obviously morally worse than A or C, but what about B? I think a common reaction is that B is less loathsome than D, but it is difficult to explain this judgment in consequentialist terms. After all, D’s anti-racist values will lead him to support a racist platform less reliably than B, just as C’s anti-racist values will lead him to support an anti-racist platform more reliably than A; so consequentialist reasoning seemingly should lead us to prefer D to B.

On the other hand, it may be that D’s stance undermines something that we care about very much in politicians: namely, transparency. Because we can only vote for or otherwise support a politician on the basis of what they say and do, we want their words and deeds to reflect their actual commitments. This is precisely what is not the case when it comes to hypocrites. Of course, we do not value transparency above everything else: as between a hypocrite who insincerely supports the good and an outright villain, we prefer the former. But as between B, an outright villain, and D, a hypocrite who insincerely supports the bad, we seem to prefer the villain’s integrity, because at least we know where we stand with him. Thus, consequentialism can explain our ranking of politicians A, B, C, and D in terms of the interplay between our desire for transparency and other values we want to promote, such as justice.

Perhaps a useful way to think about this disagreement between consequentialists, Kantians, and virtue theorists concerning political hypocrisy is in terms of two political virtues Max Weber famously distinguished: the ethic of conviction and the ethic of responsibility. The ethic of conviction involves a “constancy of [a person’s] inner relation to certain ultimate ‘values,’” or in other words, integrity. The ethic of responsibility, on the other hand, involves a proper understanding of the consequences of one’s actions and a practical ability to promote one’s ends. Those who favor the latter will likely believe that hypocrisy is no great sin (although still problematic, because transparency-negating), so long as it can be directed toward good ends, as in the case of politician A. By contrast, political hypocrisy is likely to deeply offend someone who places more emphasis on the ethic of conviction. Put another way, those who think an excellent politician is one who effectively promotes policy goals will not care about her reasons for pursuing those goals, except insofar as those reasons make her a less reliable advocate of them. On the other hand, those who think an excellent politician is one whose actions reflect her values will care deeply about eradicating hypocrisy from politics.

Yet, a too-fervent attachment to the ethic of conviction can lead to a dangerous kind of anti-hypocrisy hypocrisy. Consider politician E, who sincerely believes, and often publicly declares, that (1) a country should never start a land war in Asia and (2) a politician should always stick to his core principles. When his party starts a land war in Asia and he, without a hint of self-consciousness, votes in favor of a war resolution, he explains that the resolution authorizes a police action, not a war. This kind of self-deceived hypocrisy is particularly dangerous in politics, since it is very difficult for the politician herself to limit or check. It is also frequently a symptom of a kind of self-righteousness that may, in the politician’s own mind, license her to operate outside the normal bounds of morality. Thus, in a quest for purity of intention, politicians can fall prey to a hypocrisy more insidious than that which they seek to avoid.

We arrive, then, at a few conclusions. First, there are occasions where hypocrisy is morally preferable to non-hypocrisy. In particular, there is reason to prefer the hypocrisy of insincere politicians who support morally laudable ends to the integrity of our sincere villains. At the same time, the most morally problematic hypocrites are the anti-hypocrisy hypocrite and the hypocrite who espouses bad values without believing them. These judgments assume, or are rather supported by, a consequentialist style of moral reasoning that places emphasis on the ethics of responsibility over the ethics of conviction. Kantians and others, who elevate the significance of intention and motive in their moral judgments, may come to different conclusions.

Women, Representation, Revolution

photograph of all the women save Senator Mary Landrieu on the US Senate in 2013

As the midterm election rapidly approaches, one thing is obvious—the number of women running for office is truly historic.  There are 256 women running for Congress, 234 for seats in the House and 22 for seats in the Senate.  The majority of the women running are Democrats. There are 197 Democratic female candidates and 59 Republican female candidates. The previous record for Democratic female nominees to the House was established in 2016, when 120 women were nominated, a record that is shattered by this year’s numbers. Historically, women have never comprised more than one-fourth of the House or the Senate. This year, that might change.

With the possibility of more female governance on the horizon, it seems like a good time to reflect on what this might mean for the country in both the short and the long term. One of the more immediate results of having more women in power might have been one of the main motivators for women to run for office in record numbers this year in the first place: a change in tone with respect to how women’s issues are discussed. To many, it seems as if there are no real consequences when it is revealed that important public officials discuss and treat women in demeaning, objectifying ways. If more women are in position to write and edit the script when it comes to how public officials talk about and treat women, we might be looking at a new normal.  

If there were more women in power, it would make a tremendous difference when it comes to the habituation of children. Female children would be put in a position to see a new range of possibilities for themselves. If these female candidates are successful, becoming a politician might seem like a natural career choice for a young woman dreaming about her future. Male children being raised in a society with more female representation will never be led to believe that political power is held predominantly by men in the first place. A choice to become a politician will seem equally possible for young men, and they’ll be ready to come to the decision-making table and roll up their sleeves with both men and women.

If there were more women in power, decisions about women’s issues could be made with the benefit of the crucial female voice. Of course, not all women share the same opinions, but discussion generated by healthy disagreement among women with different backgrounds and experiences with women’s issues is crucial to constructing sound policy and legislation in these areas.

Of course, it’s not as if the dominant reason for electing women is so that they can have a say when it comes to issues that affect women. That women should be involved in discussion about women’s issues is a pretty minimum requirement for just, fair governance. A female perspective is crucial when it comes to all social policy.  

It might be time for a revolution when it comes to our philosophy of power. There are different approaches to power, each of which might be appropriate in different domains and which may work together to regulate one another. We know that women provide the majority of both paid and non-paid care work. In our current political climate, that work is significantly undervalued. What if we came to recognize the value of care—and saw it for the tremendous source of power that it ought, rightly, to be? This kind of power is not a power over, but a power to, specifically, a power to help. A care relationship arises out of need. For example, a child may have needs for food, clean drinking water, and shelter, among other things. Parents, in their capacity as caregivers, have the power to help to satisfy those needs.

What if the popular understanding of the relationship between representative and constituent changed? Currently, we tend to have a pretty paternalistic conception of the way that political representation works. People vote along party lines and then largely check-out, trusting the elected official to make decisions in ways that are consistent with their values. Politicians, on this model, are given wide berth to engage in dubious political machinations and place themselves in the pockets of lobbyists. But care relationships don’t work this way. What would change if we came to view the relationship between the representative and the constituent as a relationship of care, where the power wielded by politicians was the power to help? Care depends on need, and addressing needs requires paying attention. So a politician fails to satisfy their obligation of care when, for example, they fail to respond to constituents who overwhelmingly express a need for change in firearm legislation. The representative would retain some autonomy and authority over the precise way in which this need gets pursued, but they can’t just ignore it altogether. If a child expressed an urgent and legitimate need for medical care, we’d view a parent as negligent if they didn’t attempt to satisfy that need to the extent that they were able. Should we respond any differently when it is our fellow citizens drowning themselves in debt to pay for essential medical needs while our representatives look on, unresponsive?

People have different personalities and interests and express power in various ways, irrespective of gender. We’ll avoid generalizing. But if, as the numbers bear out, women often voluntarily engage in care work regularly in an earnest desire to help, this new way of conceiving of power results in the conclusion that many women would be quite well-suited to take on the political mantle. In many of the locations in which women are running this year, they have little chance of being successful. But some races look promising. It’s a start.

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Bathrooms and the Board of Trustees: The Ethics of DePauw’s Restroom Protests

An image of three bathroom stalls, with one stall door open.

In a recent newspaper article for DePauw University’s student newspaper, Madison Dudley interviews five DePauw seniors about their decision to begin a petition. This petition implores certain members of DePauw’s Board of Trustees to end their support of politicians who “support laws that can be interpreted as regulating women’s bodies, fail to protect DACA students, and support the recent Republican tax plan.” The petition campaign was accompanied by posters hung in women’s bathrooms in every stall of every academic building on campus. Each poster pictures a conservative politician’s face, with information about the petition and the expression “He might as well be watching you pee.”

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